Director Mike P. Nelson Interview: Wrong Turn

The original Wrong Turn, released in 2003, was a decent box office success that spawned a nigh-inexplicable slew of direct-to-video sequels, culminating in 2014’s Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort, which seemingly ended the series… Until now. Original writer Alan McElroy wrote the script for the new reboot, with The Domestics director Mike P. Nelson helming a brand new take on the bloody and beloved Wrong Turn franchise.

While still focusing on a group of young people who get lost in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia and encounter a group of dangerous people, the new Wrong Turn film is a complete reinvention of the series. Gone are the mutant cannibals and cheesy grindhouse gore effects, replaced by an isolationist group of survivalists who have spent generations cut off from mainstream society. Meanwhile, the gore factor is retained, but presented in a far more brutal, realistic, and grisly manner than its predecessors. Most importantly, the characters are believable, complex, flawed, and human, in every sense of the word.

While promoting the release of Wrong Turn, director Mike P. Nelson spoke to Screen Rant about working with Alan McElroy and reinventing the Wrong Turn franchise. He discusses his approach to a grounded and realistic take on Wrong Turn, and revels in the delights of subverting audience expectations with characters who are not just stock black-and-white villains and heroes, but relatable exaggerations of both positive and negative American values.

Wrong Turn is out now on Blu-ray, Digital, and VOD.

I just watched your movie!

Oh, awesome!

I love how different this one is. It feels like a clean break, totally new. I’m really looking forward to see how the community will respond to it. I’m sure some of them will be upset and be, like, “Where’s Three-Fingers?” and all that…

(Laughs) Yeah, we’ve already gotten a lot of that! We’ve been told by a number of people that we are the Halloween 3 of the Wrong Turn franchise. And I take that as a compliment, because, dammit, I like Halloween 3!

Hell yeah! Great movie. And this one, definitely. Same kind of vibes. You know, we’ve done the mutants six times. Let’s mix it up a bit! Tell me, did you have free reign to do whatever you wanted to do, or are there boxes that you have to check when you’re making a movie called “Wrong Turn?”

I have to take you back a little bit. The writer of the original, Alan McElroy, he wrote this script. Ultimately, this story idea was his brainchild. Robert Kulzer from Constantin Film, who was the producer and executive on the first Wrong Turn, he wanted Alan to come back and revamp or reboot Wrong Turn for right now. This was back in 2017, when he had his first draft. I read the script in late 2017. When I read it, I feel like I had the same reaction that everybody who has seen the movie is having right now. Like, I went into it with the feeling of, “Okay, Wrong Turn, part seven, okay, here we go.”

Right, not exactly expecting anything new…

I was looking for a fun new project. I love the horror genre, I love violent movies, and I wanted to do something like this. So let’s see what it’s all about. And then it just threw me for a total loop. I was thinking to myself, “Wait, what?” It took me a second to absorb all of it, because I was, like, this is not the Wrong Turn I’m used to. It’s definitely not going to be the Wrong Turn that everybody else is used to… But after thinking on it for a few days, I was like, there might be something really unique and special about doing a movie like this in this franchise, not to mention working with a studio like Constantin and a writer like Alan, who are both full-bore into wanting to do something bold, and they wanted somebody who wanted to do it boldly with them. They didn’t want to do it soft. They wanted to do a complete 180. For me, to work with those guys, and to be able to create this new world, these new characters, this new situation, without batting an eye, it was so refreshing.

That’s awesome.

When you talk about “rules,” there were very few. We talked about some of the things. Alan had the script already, and we made some tweaks to get it to where it is now, but the “rules” were this: make a good movie with good performances, make the story resonate, and make sure that not only are the Wrong Turn fans satisfied by the gore and the violence, but that it can still resonate as a powerful horror film. It sounds like a lot of rules, but also it made no rules to connect it directly to Wrong Turn other than, it’s got to be gory. And the script already came that way!

And it’s not terribly gory compared to some of the other ones. it cuts away more than I was expecting, to my relief at some of the really frightening moments!

Yes. That was a choice I made. As a director, I didn’t want to make an exploitative, gory piece. I wanted the violence to have weight. I wanted, for when there was violence, for it to be, like, “BOOM! Jesus! Oh my God!” You know what I mean? It wasn’t, like, “Oh damn, rip her apart, sweet, man!” It wasn’t like watching a football game, cheering on the team that’s ripping people apart. For the most part, I think that’s what a lot of the other Wrong Turn movies in the series are. This one, to me, was about when a character goes through a scene of violence or gets killed, there is an absolute reason why we show or don’t show what we show or don’t show. It’s all about creating that visceral experience in those moments, and finding that balance. For me, that was something I had fun exploring and messing with.

I think it totally works. A benefit to my job is that I get to go into a lot of movies completely blind. Going into any given Wrong Turn movie, I expect characters I’m not going to like, but in such a way that I will enjoy watching them die horrific gory deaths. And in this one, immediately off the bat, I was like, “Hey, oh no, I don’t want any of these people to die!” And you’ve got this real soul with Matthew Modine. Tell me about developing his story and casting such a big star in that role? Do you get intimidated working with a star?

There was definitely… I was intimidated, especially on the first day working with him. I can’t lie about that! The Matthew Modine story, or the Scott story, Alan’s a father, and I’m a father. One of the pieces of the story that he wanted was to bring back the idea of young adults in the woods getting picked off, even with more of a backbone of a story. But he also wanted to put something in there that he felt was “him.” And I responded to that because I’m a new father. I have a five year old. As soon as you have a kid, it’s like a brand new way of thinking. When you have the Modine character in here, especially how we give him the start of the movie, he’s the first character you meet, we set a precedent early on: yes, something’s going to happen, but something is really at stake.

Yeah, it’s very mysterious at first.

We put the bomb under the table with him. We don’t do the typical cold open, where somebody dies a violent death and it’s horrific and then we jump into the movie. This way, we have an opening that introduces us to a couple of characters, and it lets us know that something bad happened, and asks, what is he going to do about it? To me, there was something really fresh and unique about his character. We don’t really expect that from a Wrong Turn. We don’t expect to open up with the “old guy” trying to look for his daughter. With the movie itself, we’re playing with subverting all your expectations throughout the movie. Every character you meet has some sort of a turn at some point. Nobody is the straight-and-narrow character. Everybody has something change within them that we weren’t expecting. That’s what we wanted to explore while we were making the movie.

It’s funny you mention the subversion in the opening. As soon as it started, I still didn’t know what I was in for, and the second I saw Matthew Modine, I was like, “Oh, he shot his whole part in half-a-day and he’s going to get killed off in the first five minutes. But no, that’s not how it goes down!

Nope, absolutely not.

But if you’ve got a secret weapon, I think it’s Bill Sage.

Ooooh, man.

Maybe the secret weapon is being part seven of anything, where people think they know exactly what they’re going to get. And his character shows up, that whole trial courtroom sequence, Bill is just larger than life and absolutely magnetic in it. Tell me about getting him and developing such a complex figure.

Bill and I had plenty of conversations on how to play Venable. One thing, when casting Bill, he was a choice that came up when I was talking to our producer, James Harris. He said, “Hey Mike, have you seen We Are What We Are, or American Psycho? Do you know Bill Sage?” And I was like, “Oooooh yeah.” I went back and revisited some of his stuff and he’s such a great character actor. He just grabs on to a character and goes with it. One of the things that was important with Venable was that he couldn’t just be an ominous bad guy. There was something more about him on the page to begin with, so we needed to be careful how we cast him. He couldn’t just be the big, six-foot six, 280 pound brute, neanderthal who was like, “This is court. You are guilty. Now you die.” We wanted to give him a real human approach that he could run with. When Bill and I talked, a lot of this was… Venable is a strong man. He has strong ideals. And their system is very fair. You lie, you die. You don’t lie, you live. What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong. That’s who we are. That’s how we made it this far. What I think is so great about his character, then, having that rigidity, is that you have the C-story or the D-story where he falls in love. And you see this softer side of a man who comes across as so rigid. It’s something you see melt him, in a way. And you see when he’s with Charlotte in the cabin, you see a weird, gentler side to him. It’s a little creepy, but there’s a gentleness, a suaveness that I don’t think you’re expecting from a character like that. And it pays off all the way through the ending.

Totally. It’s so delightfully complex, because he’s got his ideals and everything, but they’re so unshakable and founded on an old-timey Americana patriarchy thing that’s kind of, like, “I’ve fallen in love with you, therefore you are mine.”

Yes, 100%.

Obviously, these people are the villains, but their society works for them in their little community tucked away in the mountains. And not having them be mutants does such a great deal towards allowing the audience to not see them as straightforward monsters.

The story provided a really interesting point of view for the villains. You can look at them and watch those scenes, and go “Yeah, these are the bad guys.” Yet, they have a point of view where, I don’t care who you are, but there’s a humanity to them where you’re like, “Gosh, they’re not all wrong.” When you have cannibals, you’re like, “Okay, they are really nasty individuals who get off on murdering people.” But this is a community of people who have set values. They’ve built a society, a community, and it’s a very fair society and community. You see that fairness in them, and you see what our protagonists, quote-unquote, have done. You can say it was a mistake or a misunderstanding, but there’s also that side of the protagonists that’s very antagonistic. These young people who think they’re enlightened and think they know the ways of the world at a young age, they go in with some pretty interesting points of view towards others. I think there’s a trifecta, because you have the city kids who come in with their stereotypes towards these people, you have the townsfolk who have their own stereotypes towards the city folk, and then you have The Foundation, who feel like they know better than anybody. And what happens is, you have this collision of these three groups of people who are really just surviving in their own societies, they have their own points of view, not all of which are bad, but also not all of which are right. They’re all flawed. I think that coming together, those flaws all rearing their ugly heads, is what causes the explosion.

We all want to puff our chests out and go, “It’s my way or the highway,” but when everybody does that, well… That’s when the fun starts.

Exactly, that’s where the conflict comes in. You see that with the “hicks,” who are ridiculous and menacing in the bar, and you’re like, “Alright, here we go, these guys…” But then you realize, when you see them again, that there’s something to them. I think everybody has a story. Everybody. As much as we want to believe it, I don’t think everybody is as black and white as we say they are. I think there are people we see who are genuinely good, but they have a dark side. I think there are people who we can look at and say, I don’t want anything to do with him, I know what he believes in and I don’t like it. But then you finally sit with him and you go, “Oh, I was wrong.” That was something really fun to explore. It’s a challenging thing to explore. I think it will be challenging for audience members. You will start to question the viewpoints of people you maybe don’t agree with, and you’ll go, “He’s kind of got a point there, maybe he’s not that bad.” And that’s going to be odd. And I love that! I think that’s what makes the movie special. It has those little nuggets of things we can grab onto and think about.

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